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From Belleville to Broadway, local producers revel in success of ‘The Prom’ musical

Now On Broadway | The Prom Musical

"The Prom" musical is nominated for a Tony Award.
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"The Prom" musical is nominated for a Tony Award.

Patty Gregory and Carol A. Bartle of Belleville are both known for wearing many hats, but Broadway producer wasn’t exactly a goal for their resume — until opportunity knocked.

And on June 9, they will be sitting in the Radio City Music Hall audience as Tony Award nominees for the original musical comedy “The Prom.”

“We’re looking forward to a wonderful night, whether we get a Tony or not. It’s such an outstanding show with a wonderful message,” Gregory said. “We’re just glad it’s been successful and so well-received.”

The musical is based on a real case in Indiana, when a girl wanted to bring her girlfriend as her date to the prom, but instead the school canceled the dance. It wound up in the court system. In this show, based on Jack Viertel’s concept, four fading Broadway stars band together to make this an issue they can get behind — and maybe grab the spotlight.

Gregory, a retired teacher who has helmed Art on the Square for the past 18 years, and Bartle, who owned the electronic security company Barcom and is now project manager for the community promotional campaign “Get to Know M.E.,” are among a bevy of locally connected producers, including Joe Grandy of Fairview Heights, and St. Louisans Jack Lane, executive producer of Stages St. Louis; Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, Terry Schnuck, Andrew Kuhlman, Jim and Cathy Berges, and Fox Theatricals.

But that’s not its only Midwest pedigree: Tony-nominated lyricist and book writer Chad Beguelin grew up in Centralia. He wrote the script with Bob Martin, and teamed up with composer Matthew Sklar on the musical score and lyrics.

If it seems like a “Six Degrees of Separation” fortuitous connection, it just might be.

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Producers Bob and Patty Gregory and Carol A. Bartle of Belleville, aka “Three Belles and a Bob,” at opening night premiere of “The Prom” on Broadway. Provided

The hit show, which opened Nov. 15 at the Longacre Theatre in midtown Manhattan after previews started Oct. 23, was honored as a New York Times Critic’s Pick, stating “Makes you believe in musical comedy again!” The best reviewed musical of 2018, Variety called it “Musical comedy heaven” while New York Magazine described is as “smart” and “big-hearted.”

Shortly after the show opened, The Hollywood Reporter’s chief theater critic, David Rooney, noted what the show had achieved. “Any musical that makes it to Broadway these days without a familiar movie source or a popular jukebox score is an achievement. So, this original story is a rainbow unicorn that wins points right there,” he said.

Producing a Broadway musical is a major undertaking, but Gregory said they believed in it from the start.

“It really is a good timely message. It’s about acceptance, inclusivity and empathy,” Gregory said.

Gregory said they were sold on backing the show after seeing just a few scenes in a small conference room in New York City. Grandy is the show’s associate producer and invited them to the NYC ‘pitch.’

“There was a lot of talent in the room, and it was very creative. It had great people involved. Jack Lane is very well-respected, has done a great job with Stages, and the Kranzbergs. That said a lot,” Gregory said. “If it’s this good without costumes, a set and a full orchestra, imagine how it would be with all of that. Everyone in the place felt the energy surge. I knew it was going to be a hit.”

Gregory and Bartle, who have been friends for 40 years, took time from their busy preparations for last weekend’s Art on the Square to discuss the show. They are thrilled with the show’s success, especially as newbies to this venture. Along with Patty’s husband, Bob Gregory, and a silent partner, they are listed in the program as “Three Belles and a Bob.”

“We wanted to get Belleville in there,” Gregory said.

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Bob Gregory, who owns the Auto Spa car washes in Fairview Heights, wasn’t previously an avid musical theatergoer, his wife said. But he was so taken with “The Prom” on opening night, he wanted to return the following evening to see it again. He is now its biggest cheerleader.

“He is hooked on ‘The Prom,’” Gregory said. “I think once you see it, you are. We were all pretty excited about its reception.”

There are many different levels of producers.

Patty Gregory has long been a supporter of the arts, having founded Art on the Square, which during its 18-year run was several times named the top outdoor art show in the country. She acted in high school and college theater productions and has appeared in a couple shows at the Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon.

They follow the updates that Lane sends them like proud parents. Everyone connected with the show is over the moon about its success, but believe its message connects so strongly.

“I think this show’s success comes from its ability to speak to the heart. Yes, it is hilarious, and yes, the music is incredible catchy and the choreography infectiously exciting, but it is the combination of that with a universal message of love, listening, and finding yourself that makes it truly unforgettable,” Grandy said.

Beguelin thinks that is what makes “The Prom” stand out, too.

“I think everyone involved with the show has been touched by how many audience members connect with the characters onstage. So many people have said that the show has opened their minds and changed their perspective. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for a musical comedy!” he said.

Grandy shared an audience story that resonated with him.

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Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, poses backstage with Prom lyricist Chad Beguelin, left, and composer Matthew Sklar. right. Bruce Glikas

“I recently had the privilege of seeing ‘The Prom’ beside a couple of LGBTQ youth. Seeing the show through their eyes, the way it affected them to be able to relate to a leading character who is seemingly the only honest and pure person in the story, was so heart-warming. I will never forget the girl next to me saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you have done. That was everything. I have to bring my dad to see this. He has to understand.’ That a show can have that kind of impact, that’s why you do it, and that is what can give it lasting power. It reaches into the heart and connects us as human beings,” Grandy said.

Bartle said she was glad it wasn’t a big blowout spectacle without heart or simply a jukebox musical, but that it could connect to people.

“Just every aspect of the show is so good. It’s mindful, it’s inspiring,” she said.

Broadway heavyweights involved

Beguelin explained how the project came about:

“Producer Jack Viertel came up with the idea. He was working with director/choreographer Casey Nicolaw on a project at Encores. Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar and I had worked with Casey on the Broadway musical version of ‘Elf.’ Jack suggested that we would be a good team to write ‘The Prom,” he said.

“We did our ‘out of town’ in Atlanta. Most shows go out of town to work out the kinks in the show before hitting the harsh lights of Broadway. We were surprised at how moved people were by the show. People came in expecting a comedy and the show is definitely that. But it also makes people get a little teary, because the characters come together in unexpected ways,” he said.

After graduating from Centralia High School, Beguelin attended Indiana University, but a professor steered him toward writing instead of acting, and he finished his degree at New York University. He has been nominated three times before for Tony Awards, for the book and lyrics to “The Wedding Singer” and for lyrics to Disney’s “Aladdin,” which had a tryout at The Muny before its Broadway run. Beguelin and his writing partner, music composer Matthew Sklar, also wrote “Elf the Musical.”

“The minute we heard Jack’s idea, we were sold. The basic pitch was a bunch of out of work (and out of touch!) Broadway actors want to find a cause to fight for in order to get a little good publicity. They hear about a lesbian who is banned from taking her girlfriend to the prom, so they go to the girl’s hometown to protest. Of course, they’re self-involved actors and they end up making things 10 times worse. It was an idea that had tons of humor, but also tons of heart,” Beguelin said.

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The four leads in “Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal” T-shirts, from left: Angie Schworer; Brooks Ashmanskas, two-time Tony nominee; Beth Leavel, Tony winner and Muny favorite; and Christopher Sieber, two-time Tony nominee and Muny favorite. Provided

For him, the experience has been a dynamic collaboration — and he has two shows running on Broadway at the same time (“Aladdin’ recently celebrated its fifth anniversary).

“I love working with Matt, Bob and Casey. We trust each other so much. If one of those guys questions a line of dialogue or lyric that I’ve written, I rethink it without a blink of an eye. I trust them that much. It’s very rare in show business to have that kind of faith in your collaborators,” he said.

Grandy, who majored in musical theater at Syracuse University after graduating from Belleville East High School, has worked as a professional dancer and performer on Broadway, the Muny, Stages St. Louis and the national tour of ‘White Christmas.” He joined “The Prom” as a co-producer shortly after performing in several shows in 2016, including “42nd Street” at The Muny. After meeting with the lead producers, he was offered the associate producer position.

“It was a big decision, but an opportunity I thought wouldn’t come around again anytime soon. So, I called my agent, backed out of some upcoming contracts, and dove into working on ‘The Prom’ full-time. It was the greatest learning experience of my life,” he said. “My work there led me to my current position now as the executive producer of one of the most historic and star-studded theaters in the country, The Cape Playhouse in Cape Cod.”

He described his personal journey on the show as “a rollercoaster - a struggle, a joy, and a moment in life to find my own confidence and strength, just like Emma in ‘The Prom.’”

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Prom producers Andrew S. Kuhlman of St. Louis, left, and Joe Grandy of Fairview Heights

But he sensed that ‘The Prom’ could be a hit.

“I knew ‘The Prom’ was special the first time I saw a video of the out-of-town Atlanta run in a small conference room in New York. Alone in an office setting, I was still moved by the message of the show, the way the comedy and heart blended so beautifully together, and the potential impact I thought this show could have on its audience,” Grandy said.

The cast features Tony winners and nominees, and a few recognizable names from their appearances at The Muny, including Beth Leavel, who won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for ‘Gypsy,” and Christopher Sieber, who was Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” both last year. Muny vets Drew Redington and Jack Sippel are from St. Louis and in the ensemble.

“The Prom” received seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Director (Casey Nicholaw), Script or Book (Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin), Original Score (Matthew Sklar and Beguelin), Actor (Brooks Ashmanskas), Actress (Beth Leavel and Caitlin Kinnunen). They were also nominated for Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Jack Lane, who has two Tony Awards for producing “Fun Home” and “The Humans” with Fox Theatricals and other St. Louis-based producers, has been a fervent believer in the show and was thrilled by its industry nods.

“Being a lead producer on ‘The Prom’ has been a dream come true for me! ‘The Prom’ is a totally original musical that perfectly balances heart, humor, and message. It embraces life and love and has people walking out on air at the end of the show. We are thrilled with our seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical,” he said.

Andrew S. Kuhlman, associate producer of Stages St. Louis, is a first-time producer on “The Prom,” and couldn’t have been more excited about the show’s good fortune but is pleased the message resonates so deeply.

“Becoming a co-producer on ‘The Prom’ was something that I would never have expected in my wildest dreams. And now when I sit in the house of the Longacre Theatre and hear or see the reactions on the faces of audience members hearing their story told on a Broadway stage for the very first time, it’s an amazing thing. This is a show featuring a story that needs to be told and the fact that it’s being received so well by the critics and awards nominations as well, that’s pretty magical.”

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The Prom cast. Deen van Meer

Prior to that good fortune, Hollywood producer Ryan Murphy, who is known for ‘Glee,” “American Crime Story: O.J. Simpson” and “The Normal Heart,” announced he was going to adapt “The Prom” into a movie for Netflix.

The movie version of the musical is set for a 2020 release. Murphy revealed the news during a charity performance of the show in April, and said he was bringing the producers and the creative team with him.

“’The Prom’ is one of the most uplifting, heartfelt and special musicals I have ever seen on Broadway. It’s truly an original that celebrates the underdog and says in a loving spectacular way that LGBTQ rights are human rights. I feel a special connection to it because it’s set in Indiana, and that’s where I grew up, too,” Murphy said.

“It has a musical score that will leave you singing for days, a hilarious and moving book and some of the most showstopping direction, choreography and performances I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

The Tony Awards are Sunday, June 9, at 7 p.m. on CBS.

Lynn Venhaus: